The Flower Eater
In a village removed from the ways of courtly life, Henna might not have known anything about pretty dresses and painted smiles if Princess Paya’s retinue had not passed through the dusty streets one late afternoon.
The princess wore a red shroud that concealed her face through the carriage’s window, but her dainty hand — adorned with gold rings affixed with gleaming gems — waved to the crowd gathered for her. Henna had never seen such lovely things in her life. Even the princess’s skin, the color of sifted sand, made Henna wish her own skin were a few shades darker.
“If only I could see her face,” Henna thought — but no one other than the royal family would ever see Paya without her veils.
But the mysterious quality to the princess made Henna all the more intrigued — so much so that she asked her father if she could try to become a handmaiden at court.
It was only after her mother’s death — and her father’s subsequent dalliance with despondency — that he allowed Henna to go to court. The day she left, he could barely look at her because of the resemblance she bore to her departed mother.
The first trial to become one of the princess’s handmaidens involved poison tasting — and two candidates choked on their own blood the first day. Everyone knew to tread carefully after that resounding experience, the clash and clattered of broken porcelain scarring Henna’s mind with the sharpness of it.
In the days that followed, Henna did not meet Paya beyond a screen that hid everything but the princess’s silhouette. From the way the princess sat poised for hours on end, Henna had no idea how a young woman could sit still for so long. Her legs folded beneath her and growing numb, Henna had to fight every instinct to fidget and find a more comfortable position.
Only on the thirteenth day was Henna allowed to wander the royal compound with some of Paya’s daily retinue — and she knew better than to pester anyone with the curious questions burning in her throat.
All was well — until one late evening when Henna heard a commotion outside in the main courtyard. Slipping out of her bedroll and going to the sliding screen door, she paused for a moment as a voice…